They hiked into Richmond with sore feet, and then it rained — minor inconveniences considering their reason for being here.
Members of The FreeTHEM Walk team, 120 miles into a 900-mile trek to call attention to human trafficking, came through Richmond on Friday, having started last week in Lynchburg. They plan to finish in Buffalo, N.Y., in time for the city’s Juneteenth Festival, which celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States.
Their path somewhat follows the route of the Underground Railroad, the network of people that offered aid and safe houses to enslaved people heading north after escaping from the South in the 1800s.
In Richmond, the FreeTHEM Walk team made two most poignant stops: the White House of the Confederacy, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family lived during the Civil War; and the site of Lumpkin’s Slave Jail in Shockoe Bottom, where humans were auctioned like merchandise.
“Human trafficking is personal to me,” said Kelly Diane Galloway, founder of the international humanitarian organization Ramp Global Missions and principal organizer of the walk. “I’m on the third generation in my family not born on a plantation where people were enslaved. My ancestors were trafficking victims, bought and sold for labor, bought and sold for sex, bought and sold for medical experimentation, bought and sold for entertainment.
“We’re doing something that’s bold, we’re doing something that’s radical, and we’re doing something that’s loud so we can get people’s attention.”
Lynchburg is central to Galloway’s effort as that’s where she attended college (Liberty University) and became involved with The Ramp Church International. She later founded her organization there, though later moved its headquarters to her hometown of Buffalo, where she also has established Project Mona’s House, a “holistic restoration program” for women who have been victims of human trafficking. She recently announced the launch of a similar program in Lynchburg.
Modern-day victims of human trafficking can include runaways, foster children, people with addictions, refugees and undocumented internationals, she said. Minors who operate online without proper supervision can also fall prey to manipulative adults.
Galloway experienced how easy the threat of falling victim to human trafficking can be on a trip to Nepal, where she was providing aid through her organization after a natural disaster. She was approached by two men who wanted her to accompany them for a “good time.” When she refused, they grew aggressive. She was able to elude them when she called people she was staying with for help.
Galloway said she was alarmed not so much by the brazenness of the men, but by the shrugging acceptance of locals who acknowledged such common occurrences but did nothing about them.
Education is a starting point for correcting the problem, she said.
“The eye does not see what the brain does not know,” she said.
The walkers, who are filming a documentary as they go, were headed to Fredericksburg on Sunday, and then on toward Warrenton on Monday. Galloway is accompanied by more than a dozen family and friends who believe in the message and were willing to put their lives on hold for the better part of two months to join the journey.
Among them is Jaleesa Robinson, who grew up in Emporia and now lives in Charlotte, N.C., where she is a life coach and motivational speaker. She is accompanied on the walk by her husband, Brandon Robinson, who is from Brunswick County, and their 2-year-old daughter, Alisa, who walks but also rides in a stroller and on her mom’s back.
“She’s the youngest” FreeTHEM walker, Jaleesa said with a laugh. “Everyone loves her.”
Jaleesa has known Galloway since their days at Liberty, where they were roommates. Galloway asked her to serve as a sort of “road manager” of the trip, which was originally scheduled for the spring of 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic. The reason for the event didn’t go anywhere, though.
Human trafficking is “happening right in our backyard,” she said, and yet many people are unaware of it or misinformed about it. Robinson said the FreeTHEM walkers are in a unique position to make the case about human trafficking.
“Our ancestors were human trafficking victims,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to connect those things together because slavery never stopped.”
Along the way, they will be making visits to meaningful places. Last week, they went to Appomattox Court House National Park, where the Civil War ended. Future stops include places such as the Johnson House Historic Site in Philadelphia, a stop on the Underground Railroad that was the home of a family of Quaker abolitionists; and the New York residence of Harriet Tubman, who fled enslavement and helped others along the Underground Railroad.
Robinson had not visited the site of Lumpkin’s Slave Jail until Friday. What was it like when she first arrived at a place of so much suffering and inhumanity?
“I got goosebumps,” she said.